I was riding my bike across South Philly looking for an interesting person and interesting location to photograph. I passed two men on their way into a house, one was quite handsome with long blond dread locks, I slowed down. Dare I?
Then, I saw a man sitting on a bench with a thick cigar, a well-lived face and a poofy white dog with a pink bow around a top knot perched on his lap. If only my eyes could blink and snap the photo. On another bench next to him was a woman and little boy. It was a beautiful scene and forgetting about the handsome man from a few doors earlier, I braked and pulled over and asked if they would be in my project.
Sonny, the elderly man, was hard of hearing and Marissa, his neighbor, repeated my request and happily they both said yes. I locked up my bike a few yards away and started to share about the project, feeling the time pressure to capture the scene before it changed too much. But, as little boys and poofy little dogs are wildly unpredictable and notoriously wiggly, the scene changed, but I was still hopeful the dog could get back on Sonny's lap for the photos.
Marissa was waiting for a friend to come and they were all going out for water ice, so my time with her and her son was limited.
They lived next door to Sonny, in the actual house Sonny grew up in. I snapped a few photos of Marissa and her son, and then her friend arrived and the dog was ushered inside their house and the three of them headed out. The old saying of shoot first and ask questions later, did pass through my mind. But as this project is about how we improvise in life, I let it go…
My interview with Sonny became a big improvisation as I listened to his stories, and he shared some moments in his long life. I really wanted to know how he had had to improvise in his life certain there would be a good story there, but he had other ideas and I learned to let go of a particular way I thought this would go and enjoyed hearing about an interesting life led.
Name: Nicholas "Sonny" Baggio Jr.
Photographed in: South Philadelphia/ Bella Vista
Lives in: South Philadelphia/ Bella Vista for 87 years never left. (Grew up in the house next door to where he lives now.)
Occupation: Retired Construction worker used to work for Independence National Park, learned finish plastering as a kid.
My father used to spray furniture and then in the winter time, he had an oil truck and used to sell kerosene. Back in the day, people has these kerosene heaters and Friday and Saturday we used to deliver kerosene. I was 15 years old I was driving an old oil truck myself. Them days the cops didn't stop you and when you got stopped and they pulled you over, if you had the right
politician, they would come and get you out and you'd pay no fine.
1. It could be said that life is one big Improv. Do you know what an improv is?
Kat: To improvise something, is to make something up on the spot, find a new way to do something, spontaneously. This conversation is somewhat improvised. I may have questions ready to ask, but how you're going to answer them and where this interview will lead is improvised. You shared about your recent fall and your nerve damage, have you had to figure out new ways to do certain things? Where in your life do you have to improvise?
S: Yeah, I got nerve damage. I got it in my leg and I got it in my arm. Sometimes it don't shake and sometimes it shakes. It all started a little over four years ago when my wife passed. I couldn't walk right -- see now it stopped (points to his hand which stopped shaking). I felt like I was walking on stones and they found out I have nerve damage in my leg and in my arms. Okay then starts again-- (points to his had which started shaking again) there goes again. Like a little motor. That's it. I live with it, you know, what could you do?
K: When I was caring for my mom we'd have to figure out new ways of doing things which would be considered improvising. Do you think that you've had to improvise in your life?
S: My daughters take care of me. I got a son and I got two daughters. I was over at my daughter's house for four months where I was recuperating. My daughter lives in Jersey, she comes over three times a week, calls me up two or three times a day. My son comes over, My daughter Mia cooks for me, washes my clothes, they do that. I got a charmed life with my kids. I love my son, the boy. But let me tell you honey, ain't nothing like girls. If God created anything better than woman, he kept it to himself. Believe me. I found that out after my wife died. Well I was always close with my kids and that's it. I got ten grandchildren and I got five great-grandchildren and another one on the way. Rich life. The good Lord blessed me yeah Saint Christopher. (touches his necklace with the coin of Saint Christopher.) That's my story.
If God created anything better than woman, he kept it to himself.
K: So even though your girls are taking care of you, is there any time in your day that you're having to do things any differently than you did them before?
S: Everything's the same, the only thing different is my age. Everything's the same but my age. That's it.
2. What is your hidden talent?
S: Just working.
K: Do you know how to make a dish, are you good at growing anything?
S: Oh, Yeah! Well everybody up the street built out. But I've made a little yard I never built out. I had a fig tree in here. I have basil, mint, good tomatoes,
peppers and I love plants. I have a plant that...my son is wait 55 or 56. When he was born, somebody came over and gave us a little Ivory plant and I still have it today it bloomed up and naturally got new shoots in here. So when I came back from my daughters I put it in the yard. You got to see how bloomed it is here. When my wife turned 80, the lady Marianne brought her this Ivory plant and I got that growing there too. I like flowers, plants, vegetables to grow in there.
K: So your hidden talent is keeping this plant alive for 55 years?
S: And I don't put no chemicals in there, just plain water. And no what else? Milk.
K: Milk? Is that for an Ivory plant specifically?
S: Mostly the Ivory plants, so I get a cotton ball, you put in the milk, go over the leaves then I put some water in the milk and then I dump it into dirt. That's what keeps them alive.
K: Wow I've never heard of such a thing. That's a hidden talent for sure. It's a secret.
S: See? My grandfather he used to do that. My grandfather lived to 103. He only had one arm, he had to do some improvising heh heh.
3. What inspires you today?
S: Well, I'm waiting till five o'clock and all my little kids come up here and I give them cookies. They come every day. I give them their cookies and I feed these birds every day. Two or three times a day. I like the sparrows. I fed them a little while ago. Around six o'clock I'll feed them again. I got 'em on schedule. They fly away then they come back. And that one's feeding his little baby. I like when they feed the babies.
While I was setting up for my interview with Sonny, Teddy the Plumber stopped by to say hello and give him a big hug and kiss. Teddy gestured and said he'd known Sonny since he was as tall as the fender of this car. A few others stopped by or waved hello to this man they had known their whole lives. It was touching to see him light up with each person who said hello.
4. How do you feel about being photographed and why?
S: It don't bother me. I was photographed. It don't bother me. I got my picture up in The Roundhouse. Hah.
K: What's the Roundhouse?
S: The police department. I got locked up in there and I was innocent. I was just there and the cop said I cursed them. I didn't curse them, the guy next to me cursed him but he picked on me. So when I went up, they expunged it. What was so funny, my brother-in-law, he was a photographer for the police department, and he's going through all these files in there and he sees my picture and he made a copy and he gave it to me. I was 44 years old.
K: How long after you were arrested and the picture was taken, did you get the picture?
S: A couple of months after that. Because by the time he was going through these files-- a lot of guys were dead. And they call it the Dead File-- Mafia. So he happened to go look there because, if you live in South Philadelphia here and especially around this neighborhood here, you get locked up right away because they think you're Mafia. And my picture happened to be in with them. It didn't say Mafia, didn't say good fellow, didn't say Cosa Nostra-- didn't say nothing. It just said disorderly conduct and the judge dismissed it. He said expunged. Yeah that cost me a lot of money. A twenty-five hundred dollar bill.
K: What? At that time even, that's crazy!
S: And I got some money back, but I didn't get it all back because they said they charged me for the paperwork that they had to do. A bunch of baloney.
K: How much did they charge for paperwork?
S: I got a 177 dollars back. It didn't take that much money for somebody to do paperwork.
5. What piece of advice have you heard that you use or think about the most often?
S: Be kind to your parents. You only have them once. Love your family and your children that's my advice. I don't think of nothing else. I love my wife, I still think of her.
6. What's something that you believe but cannot prove?
S: I believe that people come from space. I believe that. Because I look at a lot of television history-- Discovery Channel. And I see in the desert they had these stones that weighed 100 tons in there. How did they get them from one part of the Quarry to the middle of the desert? I believe there's somebody up there. I believe in that and I tell you one thing they better stop sending up these spaceships and Rockets. It's going to destroy this Earth. Believe me that's what I believe in. Too much! Stay out of there. I believe in aliens. I never seen none, (laughs). I love the History and the Discovery Channel and I see all these things and I like when they go treasure hunting in there.
K: Well thank you so thank you so much Sonny, it was great talking to you.